The Rhetorical Utility of the Word 'Biblical'
I believe that there are serious concerns with the over-usage of the word ‘biblical’ in theological discourse. It has become a bit of a buzzword right alongside ‘gospel-centered’ and ‘reformed’. Though all of these words have a substantival application, their colloquial usage tends to be misguided and ultimately inappropriate. Now before someone reads incorrectly into what I’m communicating here, I want to immediately hedge this conversation.
I’m not saying that the term ‘biblical’ cannot be correctly applied.
I’m not saying that the Bible is not authoritative.
I’m not saying that the Bible is not relevant.
I’m not saying that the Bible is unclear.
I’m not saying that you can’t be certain about what the Bible teaches.
So what am I saying?
I am arguing in this article that the use of the word ‘biblical’ in a lot of theological discourse is often not an attempt to represent the Bible, but is instead an attempt to commandeer the authority of the Bible to support a constructed theological concept. Usage of this term is more often used rhetorically, rather than descriptively, and this usage is inappropriate and harmful.
The use of the term ‘biblical’ is inappropriate when there is a healthy, rational, and biblically focused discussion regarding the veracity of either side of a theological discussion, yet, the word ‘biblical’ is often applied to one side of the discussion in an attempt to move one’s position from possibly true to necessarily true.
In a debate I was listening to recently on paedobaptism, the debater arguing in the affirmative continued to assert that paedobaptism was the biblical view of baptism. Now whether you agree with paedobaptism as representative of what the Bible teaches is not my point of the article. I’m strictly focusing on the rhetoric of a statement such as this. Applying the label biblical attempts to shift the idea of paedobaptism from being a possible theological conclusion to a biblical fact that has no room for reasonable doubt. When this shift occurs, it is no longer a discussion of faithful individuals seeking biblical truth on a complicated topic, instead, it is now the Bible vs. a detractor of the Bible. It is fallible man vs. almighty God. The person who disagrees with paedobaptism is now to be considered anti-biblical and even anti-God.
This same rhetorical move is taken by RC Sproul, who I have tremendous respect for, who has previously asserted that if you don’t believe in a particular understanding of sovereignty or model of God, then you are equated to being an atheist. Now again, whether you agree with him on his view of sovereignty or his take on perfect being theology is not the
point, the focus is on this rhetorical move that attempts to take one side of a contestable theological proposition, attach the infallible, unquestionable authority of God to that one side, and then attempting to set everyone who thinks otherwise directly against God rather than the theological proposition.
“But who are you, o man, to talk back to God?”
I have a strong aversion to this type of rhetoric and I’ve seen this rhetorical move not only for views on baptism and sovereignty, but also for Calvinism, Arminianism, free will, atonement, Lord’s Supper, eschatology, hermeneutics, and a whole host of other topics that require some level of theological discussion and interpretation.
Though this rhetoric is persuasive and effective to gain points in a debate or generate support for your views, it has tremendous consequences. I want to offer my primary concerns with the use of this rhetorical move to serve as an admonition against the misuse of the word ‘biblical’.
It sows division.
I think many times we forget that our conversations in the digital age do not occur in a vacuum. We tend to have our blinders on and see it as a mere conversation between two people when in reality it might have a large unspoken audience. When we are constantly working to justify our positions as the unquestionable position of the Bible, we are drawing a hard line in the sand that doesn’t exist. Now the person you are interacting with will be well informed enough to see through this rhetorical move, and they may even ignore it entirely, however, the onlookers may not, especially those who are attempting to learn more about theology. This rhetoric is captivating and you have now drawn a hard line in the sand. Those who are not standing on your line must be anti-God or anti-Bible. I can’t tell you how many times I've seen interactions with Christians who are questioning whether or not certain people in their church should be considered saved and Christian because they hold a certain secondary or tertiary theological position. (Don’t misconstrue this, I’m not arguing for a free-for-all in theological belief) It is this type of rhetoric that trickles down from the top to the pews and by drawing that line in the sand, you’ve drawn that line in the sand for the onlookers as well. This leads to a lot of the division we see in the church today. We have all drawn hard circles around our beliefs and if you aren’t in my circle, then I have no business with you. That’s is a dangerous place for us to be in the church considering the unity we are called to strive towards.
It is intellectually dishonest.
Now, I could imagine that I will get some pushback on this because of the tremendous value placed on epistemic certainty, especially in Western thought, however, I think that if we are objectively examining many doctrines of Scripture, there is a larger, more complicated conversation that needs to be had to arrive at a conclusion on a topic. Doctrine formation is not as open and shut as it is often portrayed, yet those that attempt to inappropriately attach ‘biblical’ to their views want it to appear that way. The rhetoric is, “If you would just open your Bible and read it, then you would agree with me.” The problem is that if you take these same individuals to passages that might contradict their doctrinal beliefs, they must work hard to re-interpret the passage in such a way that it fits within their constructed theological concept. I think that the attempt to commandeer the label ‘biblical’ for a viewpoint, and then explain away or discredit any biblical passage that contradicts your viewpoint is just intellectually dishonest. It demonstrates a desire to want the authority of certain passages but of others. It is man-driven theology where the most important and valuable passages are those that support one’s position.
It is devastating during doubt.
This last point is one that operates more on the personal plane for me, though I see it replicated frequently in conversations about deconstruction. I write regularly on rhetoric and methodology because I am one that is easily susceptible to being captivated by rhetoric and awareness of it can dull its effect.
There was a period in my life where I felt, based on the rhetoric of those that I was listening to, that I must espouse a certain position because that was the ‘biblical’ position, period. However, after examining the position, I found myself at deep odds with that position. I quickly found myself unraveling. In a way, by rejecting the position, I felt like I was rejecting God. I felt like I was rejecting His word. I felt like I was rejecting Christ, though I wasn’t doing any of those things. Most days I couldn’t even pull myself together to get into the Bible because I felt like I couldn’t even read it clearly without the extra interpretive lens overlayed on top of the text. I felt like I was standing against God all the while trying to defend God by rejecting the position. It was not a good place to be and I could see my trajectory quickly going down a bad path. I didn’t begin to come out of that dark place until I began to study the Bible more deeply and hear from others that also disagreed that it was okay to disagree with that position and still be faithful to Scripture. I attribute most of my restoration to those on either side of the discussion who treat the position with an open hand. We see this too often in theology where we build a ‘biblical’ house of cards with different theological positions. The minute you take one card out, everything else comes crashing down. I think it is this theological approach that is leading to a lot of questioning of the faith and even departing of the faith in the church today and it starts with attempting to label each and every one of the cards as biblical.
It would seem to me that a misuse of the word biblical is a clear attempt to want the weight of God’s authority behind one’s beliefs but not wanting all of what God has to say on a topic to be included. Again, I want to be clear that you can have a doctrine that you feel captures the thrust of what the Bible is attempting to teach within a particular doctrine and there are doctrines that I believe do meet the criteria of being ‘biblical.’ However, my concern is for those doctrines that are debatable, that do have some mystery or some missing components, or that require some construction, to which we apply the label ‘biblical.’ This is problematic and we ought to be more prudent in how we apply this label, especially in our theological discourse. There are harmful, often unseen consequences of doing theology in this manner.
What do you think? What criteria should we employ to determine the views that qualify as ‘biblical’? Should we be teaching flexibility rather than rigidity in secondary and tertiary doctrinal issues? Let me know in the comments below.